Chefs and Food Luminaries on How Philadelphia’s Le Bec-Fin Changed American Fine Dining
A new documentary on the restaurant sheds light on 43 years of haute cuisine and French perfection in Philadelphia
From when it opened in 1970 to its closing in 2013, Philadelphia’s Le Bec-Fin was an unparalleled testament to American fine dining. And its chef, Georges Perrier, a Lyon native, has had an unrivaled influence on cooking in Philadelphia and far beyond.
Now there’s a documentary to tell Perrier’s story to a new audience. King Georges, Erika Frankel’s newest film, comes out tomorrow in select theaters, and it delivers the inside story of one of America’s most noteworthy restaurants. To prime you for the film’s release, here are some remembrances from some of the restaurant’s biggest fans, and a sneak peek clip from the film below.
Eric Ripert, Chef and Owner of Le Bernardin
Le Bec-Fin was legendary. The first time I ate there was 10 years ago. At that point the restaurant was 35-years-old. So I was expecting the food to be a little bit old-fashioned, and to walk into a stuffy restaurant. Because it was there for a long time and, you know, Georges was not 20-years-old any longer.
Dinner at Le Bec-Fin was very luxurious. The dining room was always full. It was never a quiet place, as I had expected it to be. It was always lively. The service was precise and professional, but it was done with a lot of humor.
The food was very contemporary and a mark of what we see in French restaurants today. Georges cooked classic dishes, and I like that a lot. He kept his signature dishes that people loved, but the menu was constantly changing. Georges was always challenging himself to be relevant, which is not so easy to do when you’re cooking at that caliber. I think a lot of this came with help from his young team. There were always new ideas. He was traveling and eating at different places and getting inspired to create new dishes.
Georges was always questioning things and looking to improve every day. He had a very particular vision and experience he wanted to deliver to the clients. Georges was a pioneer in bringing fine dining not just to Philadelphia, but to the U.S. as well. Tradition and service were always the backbone of Le Bec-Fin. But Georges was always evolving, and there’s no doubt his personality was in every plate. He’s not the type of person that would let a dish leave his kitchen without his touch.
Craig LaBan, Restaurant Critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer
Le Bec-Fin was a refuge from the world and the rest of Philadelphia. It was such a rarefied thing to walk in off Walnut Street into the cloistered entrance way. You’d open the door to find a fantasy world of fabric walls and gilded accents.
Georges’ perspective was always to do things with the best technique. For him, it was always about excellence, and the food was always extraordinary. Georges was all about producing luxury in its highest form, and he was really good at that. I remember the gleaming flash of silver domes being lifted at regular intervals through the meal by servers dressed in tuxedos. There were classic dishes like rack of lamb and galette de crab. But the little things were just as wonderful; like purées of vegetables. I remember a honey roasted carrot purée that was like silk. Servers would come by and dollop this carrot essence onto your plate. I remember tasting the purée thinking, “Oh my god. This is what a carrot tastes like.” It was so pure and heightened and refined and you realized the work in haute cuisine had a higher purpose. At Le Bec-Fin, you understood that.
Ed Rendell, Former Governor of Pennsylvania
Georges put Philadelphia on the map. There were years, almost two decades, when Le Bec-Fin was in the top 10 restaurants in the country. Having Le Bec-Fin in Philly in that designation was a stamp that the city had arrived. It was our crutch too as the restaurant revolution got underway a number of years ago. Le Bec-Fin was the flag for national renown.
I always chose Le Bec-Fin for my political fundraising events. It was no question the best restaurant in Philly. And when you raise money for politics, you always want to give your givers something in return. If you’re in the business of raising money you want your events to have a reputation that there will be good food and an interesting night.
Le Bec-Fin could be intimidating for people that weren’t used to fine dining and that type of service. It was intimidating for me at first. But Georges was very good at training his staff to not be haughty and arrogant, but welcoming. The staff would put people at ease. I never did work up the courage to ask for ketchup at Georges’ restaurant though.
Georges is a remarkably good person. He is civic minded, but someone who will stand up and fight for what he believes in. We had a disagreement in ’96 or ’97 that I’ll never forget. We did a liquor-by-the-drink tax, which the state government authorized us to do, with 100% of the money going to the school districts. Well, there was a firestorm from the restaurants, so we organized a meeting with some Council members. Georges was screaming. He lost his temper, and when that happened he would curse in French. “Georges, you’re being ridiculous,” I told him, and asked, “When was the last time someone walked into Le Bec-Fin and ordered a martini and asked how much it cost?”
Daniel Boulud, Chef and Owner of Daniel
No one can imitate Georges. It’s impossible. Georges fulfilled his goal and his time in Philadelphia for almost 45 years. How many chefs are able to fill this mission? I remember he was already a famous chef in America when I was still in Lyon. But I didn’t know about his cooking until I went to Philly in the early 90s.
Georges gave Philadelphia a noble reputation. Le Bec-Fin was part of the generation of restaurants in the 60s, 70s, and 80s that were the French landmarks. There have been many restaurant successes there, but Georges is really the one who started it all. He was retro. He has this great knowledge of classic French cuisine, and he adapted that very well for America. I could see in his cooking that he was a Lyonnais.
Georges was always a great mentor and a great name for young chefs to start their career. Many chefs who have worked for me have worked for Georges. He has trained and inspired generations of chefs that may not have cared to learn French technique, but would not have become so good had they not worked for him.
Le Bec-Fin was of a different time. It was about bringing the best of France to people in the States, and Georges was one of the chefs that was establishing the real French standard in America. That became the foundation for the generation to come and they grew out of this real inspiration. Not everyone could take a trip to France. But Georges was giving you a free trip to Lyon.
Michael Klein, Food Columnist at the Philadelphia Inquirer
Ego usually overshadows true talent, but Georges has both. His ego and talent are equal and that is a striking combination. He created a market for better food and better chefs. He was a big fish in a small pond. That gave him a lot of attraction and it drew people from New York, and that did a lot for the psyche of Philadelphia.
Eating at Le Bec-Fin was a little vacation. Walking into the restaurant was like walking into a Faberge egg. There was a grandeur that made you instantly aware that you were somewhere special. If it was your first time, you were awe struck and dumbfounded. The anticipation was completely real.
The food was unlike anything I’d ever eaten before. To this day, Georges’ galette de crab is the basis of comparison for every crab cake I eat and see. The food, style, and presentation at Le Bec-Fin all had so much attention to detail. You needed someone like Georges Perrier to run a restaurant like that.
Georges has an honesty about him, and I think once you got to know him you respected him for that. If something sucked he told you. If something was good, eventually, he would tell you. You heard his passion almost every night whenever the kitchen door was open. You’d hear profanity and yelling in the dining room. At any other restaurant you say, “What’s going on?” At Le Bec-Fin, you just said, “Georges is working tonight.”